Abstract: Financial Institutions and the Management of Household Economic Risks in Nineteenth-Century America: Evidence from the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society

R. Daniel Wadhwani


Using a sample of savings accounts from the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society that stretches from 1836 to 1900, this paper reconstructs the ways in which households came to use the services offered by one important type of financial institution to mitigate personal risks and pursue opportunities in the industrial economy. The paper focuses, in particular, on the experiences of three types of users—unskilled workers, working women, and migrant workers—in order to understand how the use of savings banks (the first formal financial institution to serve Americans of modest means) became integrated into how households managed their economic resources. In broader perspective, the paper argues for the need to understand more fully the impact of financial developments on long-term changes in standards of living and access to economic opportunity over the nineteenth century.